Monday, October 17, 2016

The Demon Comes At Night

Donald Trump got me thinking about one of the most interesting characters in Jewish mythology:  Lilith, the notorious first wife of Adam.  She appears in various forms in a number of mythological stories across cultures beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Dead Sea Scrolls, The book of Isaiah in the Old Testament, The Zohar:  The Book of Enlightenment, “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78:  Lilith,” and “The Coming of Lilith” by Judith Plaskow.  In close reading, these stories reveal a woman who could be interpreted as a free spirit wishing to control her destiny and because of this, she is characterized as a demon while in another vision of her, she becomes the snake in the Garden, luring Adam and Eve into mortal and irreversible original sin.  Finally, in the Judith Plaskow piece, she is revealed to be a strong woman willing to sacrifice herself to save and enlighten her sister Eve, a significant elaboration and rich mythologizing of the Adam and Eve creation story.

Lilith comes from an ancient Sumerian name for female demons and wind spirits called lilitu, according to Janet Howe Gaines in the article, “Lilith:  Seductress, Heroine, or Murderer?”  These spirits were known for attacking pregnant women and infants as well as for their sexual harassment of young men.  Lilith, or Lilit, is often depicted with long, flowing hair and wings, and sometimes with birds’ feet or as Michelangelo imagined her, with the body of a snake and the face of a woman.  In the book of Isaiah, 34: 14, this demon appears in the Judgment of Edom:  “Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; there shall the Lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.”  The punishment of Edom echoes that of Sodom and Gomorrah, so it seems reasonable that evil in all its forms would find shelter there.  She haunts deserts and lonely places, swooping down to infect those she attacks with her poison.  She is a dramatic and dark figure in the Old Testament landscape.

She also appears in the dusty parchments found at Qumran, The Dead Sea Scrolls:  “And I, the Master, proclaim the majesty of his beauty to frighten and terrify all the spirits of the destroying angels and the spirits of the bastards, the demons, Lilith, the howlers and the yelpers, they who strike suddenly to lead astray the spirit of understanding and to appal [sic] their heart…in the age of the domination of wickedness…”  Here, too, she is a paradigm of evil who can only be vanquished by God.  She is a demon called out in exorcisms, and Janet Howe Gaines assures us that “the Qumran community was surely familiar with the Isaiah passage…”  This brings us to Judaism’s entanglement with Lilith and her origins in Jewish texts, specifically, the Talmud where Lilith is said to be a succubus, or female demon who comes in the guise of a woman to lie with men in sleep and become pregnant by them from their nocturnal emissions.

The ancient mystical Jewish text known as The Zohar mentions Lilith in several sections.  We learn that Adam was “not careful” with this, his first mate.  “Seduced by her, he sinned with that whore of a woman, the primordial serpent.”  Again, she is woman in form only, but her overriding character is that of the demon temptress, the whore leading men astray.  Later, she is paired with Sama’el as one of his consorts.  He is Satan, and the text tells us that she is his equal, his partner, also called a “Serpent,” a “Woman of Whoredom, End of All Flesh, End of Days.  Two evil spirits joined together…”  The ancient authors of the text go on tell us that she is a “smooth-tongued alien,” an “evil woman.”  Rabbi Abba is quoted as saying that human beings are on a single path to the divine, but this seducer perverts this path day after day and time after time.  Lilith has the power to lure human beings away from God and into darkness.

The battle between Lilith and Adam is one of matriarch versus patriarch.  In “Alphabet of Ben Sira 78:  Lilith,” the two original human beings fight for dominance.  The symbolism of the position of male and female in the sexual act is a struggle for power.  Lilith is a woman who will not obey her man, making her a rich symbol for feminist interpretations of the text.  Lilith’s angry outburst is to name God, a major transgression in Jewish tradition.  His name cannot be uttered without dire consequences, but she does it, and performs the act with salty abandon.  The one hundred of her children she is sentenced to see die every day as punishment assures a balance between good and evil in the world.  Lilith is fertile and procreative, but only dark beings issue from her nighttime couplings, often the result of “wet dreams.”  The spawn of Lilith are not conceived in the proper way; their path to creation is shrouded in darkness and evil.  The passage tells us that amulets must be prepared to protect healthy infants from the horrible demon Lilith.

In Judith Plaskow’s piece, we come to a breath of fresh air, and through analysis, see a different interpretation of this unique creature.  The most interesting aspect is that she is created from the same cosmic dust as Adam; in short, they are true equals.  They were, Plaskow tells us, “equal in all ways,” which leaves the reader to imagine that this equality would extend to the procreative act.  In this telling, God is branded just another man, already siding with Adam in this domestic battlefield.  It is the story of the feminist revolt against the good old boys network put in place to keep undesirables, namely women, under control.  Lilith flees this claustrophobic relationship.  She seeks justice and equity, and it is significant that she can get neither from her creator God or her husband.  God is tarnished with abusive patriarchy as much as Adam.  So she flies away.

God does not make the same mistake twice.  He creates Eve from Adam’s rib; out of man comes woman, which already casts a shadow on her sex.  Eve is doomed to servitude.  However, this quaking, seething mess of a marriage in the most beautiful and pastoral garden is threatened by Lilith who tries to return.  Eve sees her and, as Plaskow recounts, “began to think about the limits of her own life within the garden.”  This is the quantifiable crux of the story, the epiphany, the turning point not for Adam or Lilith, but for the newcomer Eve.  She is awakened to the possibilities in life.  She sees, quite literally, over Adam’s wall to the great wide open.  Walls are there to be climbed, to be knocked down, to be obliterated, and once enlightenment begins for Eve, things cannot return to being as they were.  The wall is blown apart.  Plaskow writes in language beautiful and fraught with poetry:  “And they [Lilith and Eve] sat and spoke together of the past and then of the future…And God and Adam were expectant and afraid the day Eve and Lilith returned to the garden, bursting with possibilities, ready to rebuild it together.”

Plaskow’s version of the story resonates so strongly with feminists and those who respect women.  However, why is Lilith demonized in other myths and texts?  In those tales, Lilith is characterized as evil and ostracized because she wishes to control her own fate and sex.  In Isaiah, she is lumped in with the horrific annihilation of Edom and destined to roam the desert in a deranged haze.  Why is she subjected to such punishment?  In a word, land.  Edom is destroyed because the land of Zion has been wronged.  Zion has suffered encroachment.  Therefore, God will send every evil scourge he can muster down upon the heads of Edom’s inhabitants, and the demon Lilith is one of those scourges.  In the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lilith is put with the bastards and those who stray from the proper understanding—in other words, those who do not think the way they should, the howlers and the yelpers.  Are they the protestors, those who stand up for others?  Are they those who seek justice and equity, who dare to challenge the status quo?  In the Zohar text she is again a temptress, a consort with Sama’el.  She is again an outsider, and a negative influence on others with her smooth tongue and seductive ways.

The question remains:  who is Lilith?  In Plaskow’s poetic version, and one that is most acceptable because it reveals her character, she is a woman who clearly speaks her mind.  She questions the way things are, and acts as a facilitator and teacher for Eve, a woman later charged with corrupting mankind and costing human beings the Garden of Eden.  Lilith is enigmatic, gutsy, wild, and most importantly, free.  She flies across the desert, wraps herself in snakes, dares to be sensual and sexual.  She is every man’s fantasy and every man’s curse, a haunting, dream-like presence who threatens to shake loose the foundation stones of society.  And yes, she is woman.


  • Lilith:  Seductress, Heroine, or Murder?" by Janet Howe Gaines Bible Review (October, 2001)
  • The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls translated by Geze Vermes (New York: Penguin, 2001)
  • The Zohar:  The Book of Enlightenment translated by Danial Chanan Matt (N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983
  • The New American Bible (World Catholic Press, 2011)
  • "Alphabet of Ben Sira 78: Lilith" (various translators)
  • "The Coming of Lilith" by Judith Plaskow from Four Centuries of Jewish Women's Spirituality: A Sourcebook Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, editors (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992)


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Avid Reader

“I began as I would go on—reading.”  Talk about fantastic first sentences.  Those words begin Robert Gottlieb’s memoir, Avid Reader:  A Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and they immediately establish that even though Gottlieb has worked his entire life as an editor, first at Simon and Schuster, then at Knopf, and after that, at The New Yorker followed up with freelance editing, service to the board of the New York City Ballet, and finally, as a writer, he remains at heart a reader.  He has edited everything and everyone, from literature to trash, and he recounts in detail the struggles and triumphs of the written word shaped by a writer and a good editor.

The story begins at the beginning with a tale of how a boy became a reader and then an editor.  It is full of magic moments with books and texts, and for the diehard book-lover who thrives on the printed word, there is a lot to be thrilled about in this book.  Gottlieb reinforces the idea that life-long reading habits begin in childhood:  if parents inculcate reading as the preferred sport, the children will follow suit.  Gottlieb’s father, a lawyer, often went to the Brentano’s across the street from his law offices to indulge himself “with half a dozen books, all nonfiction.”  This was during the Depression, when spare change wasn’t spare at all.  Every penny counted, but books, at least in the Gottlieb household were a necessity.  Gottlieb went on to great feats of consumption of text:  reading War and Peace in a single sprint lasting fourteen hours, for example.  Many times, he and his parents sat at the dinner table eating, all three deeply engrossed in a book.  “Only later did it occur to me that this was not normal,” he tells us.  But the worlds described in books were “more real to me than real life, and certainly more interesting.”  So read he does, including when his wife struggled to bring a baby into the world.  Gottlieb stood by for the birth, deeply engrossed in the galleys of one of his authors, editing, editing.

Although he did not always fit in at school, he does have good things to say about Columbia and how the university changed his life.  It was the “intense atmosphere of seriousness about literature” that most inspired him to read, often all night, and then skip his morning classes.  He read widely—the Russian novelists, Proust, James—all the usual suspects.  He contributed to The Columbia Review, and spent a semester working on Hawthorne’s notebooks.  It was this work, this work of reading, that would save him, he tells us.  After bouncing around New York post graduation, he finally landed at Simon and Schuster, and his long editorial odyssey began.  He goes on to edit some of the major writers of the 20th century.  We learn that Will and Ariel Durant were “self-important” and “demanding”; Jessica Mitford “loved to expose chicanery,” and “loved most of all revealing the idiocies of the foolish, the greedy and the pompous.”

The stories of his work with writers are most interesting.  We learn how the books we have come to love and read and reread were made.  His narrative voice is strong, and Gottlieb is not afraid to expose his own foibles and shortcomings, nor does he cut himself any slack when discussing some of his more eccentric hobbies like collecting women’s plastic purses or falling in love with dance.  He is consistently humble and without guile, seemingly always excited to work with an author, even when the person drove him to the brink of madness.  He flat out says that the late, mega-selling Michael Crichton “was not a very good writer…sloppily plotted, underwritten, and worst of all, with no characterization whatsoever.”  Crichton could not “create convincing human beings…because they just didn’t interest him.”

Gottlieb is as hard on himself as he is on the important literary figures he has known.  His divorce, psychoanalysis, his quirks and phobias including a healthy fear of flying, all add up to a character with a life well-lived with whom a reader might want to have a deep, ongoing conversation about that life and literature.  In fact, the book has a breezy, conversational tone.  It is clear, Gottlieb has fun at his job.  He says several times that he loves his work and when he was at Knopf or Simon and Schuster, he often could not wait to get to work each day.

Even stories about his first days at The New Yorker, a subject fully vetted in many media outlets, are interesting.  Gottlieb exhibits some courage entering those hallowed halls when most of the staff felt that William Shawn, the legendary editor, had been wronged by S. I. Newhouse when the publisher eased him out in favor of Gottlieb.  Of course, Gottlieb, himself, says he was just doing his job, but one can tell it is was a difficult transition, especially when Shawn told his writers and staff that he had been fired, which was not entirely true.  One interesting piece of the magazine story is Gottlieb’s encounter with Eleanor Gould, the legendary grammarian and fact checker at The New Yorker.  In describing a draft that had passed across her desk, Gottlieb writes:  “I had never seen anything like it—the tiny handwriting, the long lines and arrows snaking around every page, filling every margin, and not just asking questions of grammar but raising issues of logic, sense, and indirection.”  Gould died in 2005; she was probably the first celebrity grammarian.

For readers, Gottlieb’s book makes for an excellent diversion offering insight into the world of publishing.  It is not always a glamorous world with its obsessive parsing of words, but Gottlieb’s storytelling voice is strong and true, full of character and detail.  It is much too soon to write off the importance of the printed book in our culture.  E-reader sales have slowed, and most people still prefer the solid heft of a novel in their hands rather than a digital file on a tablet.  What we forget, or simply do not understand, is that an editor is as important to the publishing process as the OB-GYN who delivers a baby.  Yes, the mother does all the work and the baby exits the womb into the world, but the doctor is there to catch the infant and help him breathe his first breath.  Editors do the same.  They often provide structure and balance to the writer’s work and try to challenge the artist to be true to the endeavor and produce the best work possible.  For that, all readers are grateful.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

This Is Why Plagiarism Matters

Photo courtesy of J. Scott Applewhite, AP

“Derived from the Latin word plagiarius (‘kidnapper’), to plagiarize means ‘to commit literary theft’ and to ‘present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source’” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed.; 2003; print]).  “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs.  Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft.  Passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.  Plagiarism is also a moral and ethical offense” (MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, [Seventh Edition]).

So Melania Trump is a kidnapper.

As America wakes up to Day 2 of the big show in Cleveland, everyone will be talking about Melania cribbing her speech from Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.  In the opening paragraph above, I did what writers do:  I attributed material from another source that I have used in this essay.  It’s not rocket science and it is important.

I work with writing students all the time, and very few of them plagiarize on purpose.  The majority of the time, the student-writer simply forgets to use quotation marks for directly quoted material.  They also forget to put in the source.  Or, they do not attribute information they have summarized or paraphrased from a source.  I have only a few occasions in 28 years in the classroom where the student bought the paper complete or copied out a full paper written by someone else.  This accidental plagiarism is a moral error, especially to people who work with words daily, but is also to be expected with students who are learning the value of scholarship and research.

But make no mistake:  plagiarism is theft.  One who plagiarizes steals ideas and yes, words, from another.  It is fraudulent and duplicitous behavior, and even if it is unintended, it colors everything the comes after from that guilty writer.

Let’s examine the definition quoted above.  “Plagiarism involves two kinds of wrongs.  Using another person’s ideas, information, or expressions without acknowledging that person’s work constitutes intellectual theft.”  This is why we have warnings about copying DVDs of films.  It is an offense punishable by fines and jail time.  It is called “intellectual property theft,” and it is rampant in this digital frontier.  We are talking here about ideas, not just words.  In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, the Trump camp tried to say that the sentiments were Melania’s and the words she used were just common expressions that many people say to their children.  The sentences, phrases and chunks of material were almost identical.  The content of the speech, the ideas, may have been similar to those expressed by many parents to their children, but she should have struggled harder to make those expressions her own.  Many of the talking heads on the cable news networks remarked that it was strange the speech did not contain any stories or personal accounts of Donald Trump at home.  The speech read generic, which may have been due to her lack of her own ideas.

The MLA guide goes on to say that “passing off another person’s ideas, information, or expressions as your own to get a better grade or gain some other advantage constitutes fraud.”  It is a funny side note that fraud has played a role in the Trump University scandal.  But here, it would appear Mrs. Trump is trying to concoct a picture of the Trump philosophy about following one’s dreams and having hope, which are common sentiments, but this is where the words most closely align between Mrs. Trump’s speech and Michelle Obama’s words in 2008.

I encounter students all the time who see no harm done with borrowing someone else’s words and sentiments.  Many times, I’ll see photos and quotes taken from websites without attribution, and when I attempt to discuss this with the students, they believe no real crime has been committed.  Granted, I have never heard of anyone in modern times going to prison for plagiarism, but it strikes at the heart of a person’s character.  For journalists, essayists, indeed, all writers, plagiarism is serious business and careers are ruined because of unattributed material.  Students will most likely suffer a failing grade on the paper when they plagiarize.  They might even fail the course, or if the school has a strict honor code, they may have to find a new school.

What Melania Trump did tonight is deliver a fraudulent version of her life with Donald Trump and the abiding precepts with which she lives her life.  She will not receive an F from any teacher, although the press is having a field day.  She will not fail a class and never graduate.  However, if she knowingly delivered this speech kidnapped from another place and time and does not admit her mistake, everything that comes out of her mouth from this point forward will be suspect.  She is a plagiarist and cannot be trusted.  Worse, she has painted the other members of the family, her husband, and her staff with the broad brush of dishonesty, fraud and questionable ethics.  For the rest of their time in the public eye, every one of their words will be scrutinized.  Trump and his retinue have a credibility problem.  Of course, as a candidate, the press has caught him numerous times in exaggerations and even outright lies.  So maybe Melania’s gaff tonight was just one more in a series of frauds perpetrated on the American political scene by the man with the particular hair.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Genius In A Vanished World

We were the only two people in the darkened theater.  One entire row of seats had been roped off because they were damaged when part of the ceiling fell.  The place smelled of stale popcorn and body odor, and we had to wipe the accumulated buttery grease off of the vinyl seats before gingerly sitting down to await the show.  The film was Genius (Lionsgate, 2016), starring Jude Law and Colin Firth and directed by Michael Grandage.  I knew of Max Perkins and his editing work with most of the major writers of the early 20th century:  Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.  I knew he had performed more than just editing tasks for his writers, including being a surrogate father-figure.  But what unfolded in front of me over the next 104 minutes was something I had not seen before.  Grandage had managed to illustrate and dramatize what was not considered all that interesting:  a person editing a manuscript.  Grandage gives us extreme close-ups of Perkins’ red pencil as he circles paragraphs and lines out words.  What is cerebral and internal became physical in the cinematic light.  Jude Law captures the maniacal energy of Thomas Wolfe; Colin Firth inhabits Perkins’ calm, methodical, patient character.  It was a special cinematic experience for me.  When it was over, we walked out into the deserted lobby.  Even the employees were gone and we had to let ourselves out of the double-glass doors.  But for a film about a vanished world, that seemed eerily appropriate.

I purchased the book upon which the film was based:  Max Perkins Editor of Genius (New American Library, 2016) by A. Scott Berg, first published in 1978.  Of course, the book is better than the movie because so much of the story was left out of the cinematic treatment.  Perkins worked all of his career with Scribner’s, the first publishers of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe and a host of other influential writers in a time when novels were the dominant literary art form.  He did far more than just edit.  He shepherded each of his authors into print, loaned them money, parented them, sat with them in the hospitals and mental asylums when they broke down, and in the end, cared for their legacies and estates when they died.  The film focuses mainly on his work with Wolfe, but the book shows us the full spectrum.  He did as much with Fitzgerald who battled all kinds of demons in his career.  He manned-up with Hemingway, journeying down to the Gulf Coast to fish and listen to the big man’s adventures.  He encouraged, cajoled, and inspired his writers to greater artistic heights than they could reach on their own.  The book clearly indicates that Max Perkins is the genius in the title whereas the film leaves one unclear who is the actual genius, Perkins or Wolfe.  Both fit the artistic definition.

What impressed me the most about these two pieces of art is the vanished world they represent.  Scribner’s published a magazine for years, and that is where many of the writers got their start or later, serialized their novels before publication.  That kind of system no longer exists.  Magazines and newspapers have dried up.  Writers are not writers anymore; they are “content providers.”  What is also interesting are the elements of time and physicality.  In the film and in the book, we see Wolfe, a writer of prodigious manuscripts, submit his work in crates of rubber-banded sheets, some handwritten and other typed.  The wooden boxes fill Perkins’ office.  He employs a battalion of typists to convert the manuscript into one massive draft of thousands of pages.  He then works, line by line with the author, to cut and shape the manuscript into a coherent novel of substantial artistic achievement.  In the book, we see the gestation period of a novel.  Fitzgerald writes and writes, lays off for a year to work for Hollywood only to return to the novel and write some more.  Perkins worries that it has been five or ten years since an author’s last book and the public may have forgotten him.  Hemingway seems the most disciplined of writers, setting himself a daily word count and working hard for months on end to finish a novel.  Then he heads off for an African excursion or to cover a war.  So time is given for these writers to compose their works.  And all of them submit physical manuscripts which are then worked over, by hand, across the desk of Perkins in collaboration with the writer, moving line-by-line through the text.  There is no sense of urgency for instant gratification.  Sure, the writers and Perkins wait for reviews and sales reports when a novel hits the bookstores (yes, bookstores!).  But the world today, with its self-publishing business, the rise of Amazon, and the death of physical bookstores is so much different.

I liked the film Genius, but it is geared for a very particular audience—on my night, just two people!  I am amazed the film was made.  When I exited that empty lobby near midnight on a hot summer evening, I was struck by the loss of that vanished world.  The novels birthed by Max Perkins and his writers were celebratory events when published.  They were anticipated by the reading public.  I am not sure novels hold the same cultural relevance now.  Films hold some regard in our culture, but they are big bombastic affairs with more special effects than literary story.  I cannot imagine people being intrigued by what an editor does, or how one person could shape a cultural entity like a novel.  The world of Max Perkins and his writers is a vanished world and it is strange that this one fact puts it on the same level as a film that also depicted a vanished world but was a blockbuster:  Jurassic Park.  When Max Perkins roamed the earth, we had a literary culture.  Not anymore.